Kids and Screens: When, What, and How to Play it Safe

Three areas of screen time for happy parents and engaged kids.

By El Robertson, Community Pediatric Specialist Speech and Language Therapist

It is pretty much impossible in this day and age to not raise a child around screens. Screens are in shops, schools, museums, and doctors’ waiting rooms. In most of our homes, we now have TVs, smartphones, tablets, and computers. The generation we are raising wants to use them, and most of them know how to use them better than we do ourselves! So how does this all fit into communication? Is it making our children skip the speech? Will they be better at typing than talking? Will they switch from people to pixels?

These are all valid questions and valid worries to have. Research is emerging left, right, and center for the pros and cons of integrating screens into our children's lives. So what is right? Well, probably, like with everything else, it's all about balance. The future of our children will involve technology. Their ability to use it and learn with it and from it will be a fundamental part of their education and employment later in life. So how do we take all the positives while avoiding the negatives?

As a speech therapist, I get asked this question a lot. And my answer is often this:

"Screens will only be a barrier to communication if we let it be."

There are three areas that parents should think about when setting screen time limits: focus, timing, and connection.

Screen time with the incorrect focus, timing, and connection, like everything else, can be a distraction from play, a barrier to engagement, and a cause for a communication breakdown.

On the other hand, screen time with the correct focus, timing, and connection, like everything else, can encourage communication, enhance play opportunities, and bring about new types of engagement within families.

So let's unpack these three areas:

Focus - What is my child doing during their screen time?

Screen time is a very generic term. The number of different types of engagement and activities different screen gadgets can offer is enormous. Therefore it is important to choose the right kind of screen time activities and resources for your child. For example, watching 60 minutes of cartoons is a very different experience than spending 60 minutes on learning apps like Speech Blubs or Articulation Station, which provide activities for learning language and practicing sounds. Set up screen time that engages your child, encourages them to move, sing, dance, answer questions, learn, and use their language.

Timing - When and how long are they accessing screens?

There is currently very little high-quality research to tell us how long is "too long" for our children to have access to screens. Therefore you need to consider this for you and your family. When I decide this for my children, I ask myself: "What are they NOT doing while they are on the screen?" e.g., play, chatting, drawing, running around, etc. Plan time for screen time and make sure you plan time for other activities and experiences that are extremely important for other social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development.

What is the best time of day for accessing screen time? There is increasing research and advice around the impact of the blue light screens omit and the negative effect it has on sleep. Sleep is essential for our children's development. Therefore it seems sensible to organize your child's screen time to not be near nap or bedtime as it may impact their ability to wind down and nod off.

Connection - With whom are they engaging?

Screen time doesn't have to be a solo experience. If you are anything like me, you sometimes use screen time to distract your child for 5 minutes while you get a job done. There is nothing wrong with this! However, screen time doesn't always have to be a solo activity. I would encourage you as parents to get involved as well. Watch something together on TV, chat about it, play a game on a tablet together, draw silly pictures on the computer, dance to music videos, and listen to stories. Communication is built on connection. Therefore, they need YOU to transform their sedentary solo "zone out" into a fun, interactive, communication-rich opportunity.


About the Author

El Robertson is a Community Paediatric Specialist Speech and Language Therapist. She works in schools and clinics in Hertfordshire, UK, with a range of parents, children, and education professionals to support children's speech and language and increase their functional communication skills. She joined Speech Blubs to help them develop better content for children and write educational articles for the Speech Blubs Blog.

Top photo by McKaela Lee on Unsplash.